This week’s “ESC Carte Blanche” editor is Sue!

“Hi, I’m Sue. I’m 28 years old and from Germany. I’m volunteering with OCC Greece to learn more about how development projects are designed and coordinated and how to communicate about them best. Over the last  5 months with OCC I have learned a lot!”

“I wrote this article because I have always been interested in migration. I have volunteered with different organizations who work with migrants in different countries. I have seen a lot of people waiting around in some camps, having to put their lives on hold because they were not allowed to cross some borders. I wanted to learn more about why the world is structured like this and if there is an alternative.”

“You should know that no human being is illegal. This is a contradiction in itself. People can be beautiful or even more beautiful. They can be fair or unjust. But illegal? How can a person be illegal?” Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel

In our current world order the presence of certain people in certain places is considered illegal. The reason for this is that the world is structured into nation states that are promised autonomy and sovereignty. These states have borders and they are largely allowed to freely decide who is allowed to stay within these borders according to international law. Anyone staying within these borders without the explicit permission of that state is therefore doing so illegally. What is interesting is that it is generally recognized internationally that everyone is allowed to move freely within their own state and that everyone can leave their own state and any other state at any time (Velasco 2016:44f). These rights are anchored in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 

“Everyone has the right to freedom of movement within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

(UDHR art. 13)

In our current world order the presence of certain people in certain places is considered illegal. The reason for this is that the world is structured into nation states that are promised autonomy and sovereignty. These states have borders and they are largely allowed to freely decide who is allowed to stay within these borders according to international law. Anyone staying within these borders without the explicit permission of that state is therefore doing so illegally. This restricts access to big parts of the world for so many people who are forced to leave their own country and they get stuck in transition zones until a state gives them permission to enter (Velasco 2016:45f). Even those who gain access to another state, are often marginalized, discriminated against and subjected to external determination that makes it impossible for them to live their lives the way they want to because their presence in that country is not considered a right but a privilege. Our own nationality largely determines how free we are to move through the world. If you are an  EU citizen you can move freely within the European Union and usually have easy access to countries outside of the EU compared to many other world citizens. We, who have the smallest need to migrate, have the highest privilege to do so. The fundamental problem  of inequalities between societies is constantly being reinforced through this. Nevertheless, this world structuring is largely unquestioned in society. It seems that most people believe that the earth is naturally split into nation states by national borders. Only few people consider alternative systems in which the world could be structured. 

In order to understand why nation states and their borders are considered natural by so many people we took a closer look at some reflections on them. What we found is that the whole debate can be broken down into two contradictory basic worldviews.

Individualist Worldviews

The individualist worldview is what societal theories such as liberalism, egalitarianism, or natural justice are built on. They view the individual as the center of society on which every community was built and  therefore grant rights to the individual rather than the community. These theories assume that where a person is born is a mere coincidence and it should therefore not determine their rights. Individualist worldviews consider every person to be of equal value and grant every person the same rights. The basic principles of liberal egalitarianism are freedom, justice, and peace. These values are anchored in most constitutions of western nation states, as they are in the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights:

„Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

(UDHR, Preamble)

The declaration goes on to stress that these principles apply to all human beings:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.“

(UDHR art. 2)

So if western nation states, the UN, and the EU, are built on principles that derive from an individualistic worldview, then differentiating between citizens and non-citizens and granting people different rights according to their status, can only be considered illegitimate. Consequently, according to individualism, nation states do not have power to decide who can enter their territory and who cannot, as they cannot give this right to some but not to others, based on where a person was born. The individualist perspective therefore highly supports the opinion that state borders should be open and every person should have the right to reside wherever they want. 

Communalist Worldviews

Quite the opposite conclusion derives from communalist worldviews. They are based on the presumption that humans are inherently social and need a community to live. They see the community at the center of society and grant rights to the community rather than to its individual members. Different theories that are based on this worldview claim that people actively created their communities based on a common culture and language. These communities grew over time and are now the size of states. But essentially these states are still communities that were created by its members. According to these societal theories, the founding members of a community have the right to decide who can become a member of this community. They have the right to exclude from it whoever they want in order to protect their common goods and interests, such as their culture and language. Morality in these theories is not considered a universal concept like it is in theories based on individualism. But it is rather created by the members of a community and therefore only applies to them. The laws, rights, and freedoms that the members decided on therefore do not have to be granted to people who are not part of the community. 

„…that describes a political community as a world of common meanings, based on a shared identity. This shared identity finds its origins in a common understanding of who ‘we’ are, of what it means to be a member of the community.”

(An Verlinden)

Judging from these theories, nation states are communities that developed historically based on a shared identity, culture, and language of their citizens. These citizens have a right to protect their culture by excluding anyone from participating in it and from being present in their territory. A right to free movement does not have to be granted to anyone who is not a citizen of the state. 

Adding an Anthropological Perspective 

To not leave the issue as black and white as it seems to be, we want to add an anthropological perspective to these worldviews. As the science of culture, anthropology does value the community and its culture. However, from this scientific view, the assumption that nation states grew historically based on a shared identity and culture is false. It is rather the opposite: States emerged not through natural, cultural processes but  through political processes and they grew as a result of these. Powerful people drew borders on the map and claimed that all people between these borders are now to be considered a nation; one society. Through these borders, through the creation of a society, a common culture, language, and identity was constructed. The members of modern nations used to be part of different cultural units and did not consider each other part of a common society. 

„The contemporary nation-state, erected upon the sentiment of nationalism, is an ambiguous political phenomenon. It often unites what was formerly diverse and scattered, but often, too, it creates particularism where formerly there was universality.”

(Lloyd Faller)

What we took from the debate

The question of the legitimacy of state sovereignty and closed borders is not as easy to answer as either side might assume. Obviously, there is value in community and in culture. It gives people a sense of belonging. But our modern communities – the nation states – are not natural units and therefore do not represent the only possible world order. If nation states and their societies were constructed, then any other form of community and society can be constructed just as well. As culture and identity are never stable but fluid, always in motion, and always being reconstructed by its members, immigration does not threaten this identity but merely influences it to change in a different way than it would without external influences. Our modern nation states are built on liberal egalitarian principles. They claim to grant freedom, equality, and peace to all people, but in reality they grant them only to people they consider to be part of their own societal units. This makes these principles not rights but privileges of those who happen to have been born within the borders of those states that grant them. 

Our volunteering program is funded by the European Union through the European Solidarity Corps!

The “ESC Carte Blanche ” is a section where we give the mic to our European Solidarity Corps volunteers and give them the creative freedom to write a piece about a topic of their interest linked to migration. 


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